Alice and Clemen Schneider were at first confused by the phone call from their daughter, Terry. Terry called to tell them that her sister Rae Ann, called Birdie by everyone, hadn’t shown up to Terry’s house for the Christmas holiday.
The couple had left their home in what was then known as North Park (now the Machesney Park area) to spend the 1972 Christmas holiday with Clemen’s father in North Dakota. Two of their daughters, Terry and Birdie lived in the Bloomington, Illinois area.
Birdie joined Terry and her husband in Bloomington in August of 1972. She was excited to have a fresh start in a new place. She graduated from Harlem High School in 1971. Birdie was painfully shy and hadn’t made a lot of friends in school. She was diagnosed with epilepsy and that kept her from being outgoing and approachable. Though she hadn’t had a seizure in a while, it was always in the back of her mind. It kept her from doing so many things that other young people her age took for granted. She had never had a job before and couldn’t get a driver’s license. It also kept her from being open to relationships, especially with men. It felt like everyone in North Park and possibly all of Rockford knew about her seizures. Bloomington-Normal was an exciting college town where no one knew anything about her or her seizures.
At first, Birdie stayed with her sister’s family but by September she had found an apartment and two room- mates. Birdie also got a job. She worked as a waitress at a Steak and Shake restaurant. Her room-mates and co-workers would later say they didn’t know very much about Birdie, just that she was very quiet and a home body.
Her maternal grandmother Beryl came to visit toward the middle of December 1972. Terry, Birdie and Beryl went Christmas shopping, cooked together, and laughed as they wrapped the presents they bought. Beryl tried to convince Birdie to return to Rockford with her for the holiday. But Birdie was adamant that she was the new girl at work and had to cover the holiday hours. Terry assured Beryl that Birdie would be with her family for the holiday. Beryl couldn’t know that this would be the last time she would ever see Birdie alive.
One of the things Birdie liked about her apartment was that it was really close to work. It was about a mile away and most days she could walk it in less than 20 minutes. When she got the job at the end of the summer it was still light out at 5:00 p.m. when her shift ended. But by winter, it was dark by the time Birdie left the restaurant. Her co-workers watched her push open the door and step out into the dark on December 22, 1972. It would be the last time anyone would see Rae Ann Schneider alive.
Her room-mates started to worry about her when she hadn’t returned that night. They knew that she didn’t know many people. She had met a couple of young men but neither of them could be considered a boyfriend. They also knew that Birdie would not leave for a long period without her seizure medicine. The room-mates decided to call her sister.
Police during this time period usually waited 48 to 72 hours before even taking a missing person report, especially in a college town like Bloomington. But the fact that Birdie was on medicine put them on alert. Lt. Kenneth Morgan was put in charge of her case. When Birdie hadn’t contacted anyone by Christmas day, Morgan said he grew fearful. Another girl, Marie Burchie, had gone missing from the area back in April and was found buried in a shallow grave. Birdie’s family tried to hold onto hope. Her grandma Beryl offered a $1,000.00 reward for her safe return or information leading to the arrest of the person who took her.
They would have no answers for nine long months. When another girl went missing in the area in May 1973, Birdie’s parents were resigned to the fact that their daughter would not return home to them. They wouldn’t know the truth until the beginning of August 1973.
The case blew wide open when Jesse Donald Sumner was arrested in July 1973. He had beaten his third wife when she confronted him about molesting his step-daughter. After Sumner’s arrest, the wife had some information for the police. The wife told of Sumner’s involvement in the cases of the missing girls. When the police confronted Sumner with his wife’s allegations, he decided to confess. He led the authorities to two more graves. One was a shallow grave on the road south of Stanford on Old Danvers Road. It was where he took Dawn Huwe when he kidnapped her in May 1973. She had been hit on the head and buried alongside the road.
The other grave held Birdie’s body. She was buried in Sumner’s garage under the dirt floor. She had been beaten on the front of her head by a blunt object. On her finger the authorities found her class ring with the Harlem Huskies 1971 insignia on the side. Police theorized that Sumner buried Birdie in the garage because the ground was too frozen in December when she was kidnapped.
Jesse Donald Sumner was tried first for the April 1972 murder of 20 year old Marie Burchie. She, like Dawn Huwe was a student at Illinois State University. Sumner was found guilty and sentenced to 50 to 100 years for the murder of Marie.
Sumner was put on trial for Dawn and Birdie’s murders in October of 1974. Before handing down the sentence Circuit Judge Calvin Stone read a statement, “Cruel, bizarre, unmerciful, despicable are all understatements for this man.” He also stated that he didn’t believe that Sumner could ever be rehabilitated and sentenced Sumner to 100 to 200 years in prison. Judge Stone said he hoped that Sumner would never walk free again.
Judge Stone would get his wish. Sumner died in Joliet Prison in 2005 at the age of 68. He is buried in his family’s plot in Stanford, Illinois.
Birdie was brought back home and buried in Sunset Memorial Gardens. Her parents were laid to rest near her when they died a few months apart in 2011.
Copyright © 2019 Kathi Kresol, Haunted Rockford Events